Kind Of Bluegrass

Jaime Chong/Staff

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This weekend Golden Gate Park will turn into San Francisco's version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain." No, there won't be cigarette trees or whiskey lakes, but the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival gets pretty darn close to the spirit of the hobo-Americana standard. Free music in the bucolic heart of American counter-culture, full of free-wheeling kicks, congresses of banjo pickers on and off stage and the wondrous sight of kegs in wheelbarrows. Yes, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a barrel full of monkey-fun.

For a festival imbued with such joyful appreciation of freedom and eccentricity, Warren Hellman might seem a strange patron. At first glance, the founder and funder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass might seem out of place at his own festival. An investment banker by trade, Hellman logged hours at firms like Lehman Brothers. But upon closer inspection Hellman's life has been just as eclectic as his festival. Hellman was a bluegrass and folk fan growing up in New York. He played water polo for Cal in the '50s while earning a degree in business administration; after that he served two years in the army before attending Harvard's MBA program. Somehow, through all this and a successful career in banking, Hellman has been able to retain his love for American folk music. He evens has his own band, the Wronglers (playing Sunday at 11 in the morning!).

The genesis of Hardly Strictly came from an idea he had been carrying around for some time. "I had this fantasy of putting on a bluegrass festival someday," said Hellman. In 1999 he teamed up with Slim's manager Dawn Holliday to make the dream a reality.

In 2001, the first year of the festival, Hellman "wasn't sure if anyone would show up for bluegrass in San Francisco." But people showed up to see nine acts play in the single-day incarnation of the festival. The two highlights, for Hellman at least, were the performances by Hazel Dickens and Emmylou Harris.

Each year since, Hardly Strictly has grown steadily, not just in attendance (which topped out at 750,000 for three days last October), but also in acts and stages. What started as two stages has transformed into six stages and 78 acts. It's experienced a few bumps, however. Record heat required that $50,000 worth of water be purchased one year, and the concurrent Fleet Week stars the Blue Angels drowned out the tunes in 2007, yet overall Hellman considers the festival's run a success.

Over the last nine years Hardly Strictly has showcased some of the best American folk music has to offer. Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Gillian Welch and John Prine have all graced Speedway Meadows' various stages. Hellman's favorite acts are still Dickens and Harris, who date back to the beginning of the festival, although he also notes that "Robert Plant and Alison Krauss put on a fantastic show in 2008." This year Hellman is looking forward to seeing the Ebony Hillbillies, a group that started out busking in Queens. Hellman is especially proud of the "hardly" section of the festival, which brings fans from different musical genres together. He cites Gogol Bordello, who played the festival in '08, as an act that puts on great shows and brings new fans to folk music.

When asked about San Francisco's status as a musical destination he waxes historical. "Folk music has been an integral part of San Francisco life since the the Gold Rush miners brought songs from all over the world." Hellman sees San Francisco's musical explosion in the '60s as a continuation of this tradition.

Even music like, in this reporter's opinion, soulless electro has a place in the city - LovEvolution, a day rave at Civic Center, has shared a Saturday with Hardly Strictly for the last three years. However, this year the dance has been cancelled, which Hellman thinks is unfortunate. "I want as much music, as many events as possible in San Francisco."

Yet Hellman's support of music isn't limited to the other side of the bay. He's been a historic patron and supporter of the Berkeley folk concert venue the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. The club's new building on Addison Street is "wonderful, a perfect fit for neighbors Berkeley Rep and Aurora Theatre."

Looking to the future, Hellman hopes that the festival will continue to grow, saying, "I'd like to see it get bigger. For the lineup to get more eclectic." His wish list includes opera singers, symphonies and perhaps country legend Merle Haggard. Can't wait for that jam session.

Indulge in some hobo-Americana with Derek at [email protected]

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